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October 25-31, 2006

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Leap Year

'The Bridge' is emblem of San Francisco, and its last exit

By Richard von Busack

ERIC STEEL'S moody and beautiful documentary The Bridge is timely for Halloween. Can it be that there is something animate about the Golden Gate Bridge, something that lures people in pain? The clouds muffle the bridge; the cables, compressed by Steele's extreme telephoto lens, look like golden harp strings. In some ways, it's like a set for heaven in a bad movie. Steel broods over what is reportedly the most popular spot for committing suicide in the world. Tad Friend's New Yorker article "Jumpers"—the inspiration for The Bridge—notes, if I recall it right, that the authorities stopped publicizing the death toll after 1,000 people flung themselves from it. In 2004, 24 people died, and Steel finds some of their friends and relatives, as well as one young man who lived to describe his 220-foot plunge.

Linking the film's varied tragedies is the suicide of Gene Sprague, caught on-camera as he made his final decision. He's a tiny figure in black wandering on the sidewalk, the wind whipping his long black hair as he paces. By accident, Steel filmed Sprague's demise. During the 100 hours he spent filming the bridge, he had a cell phone at hand, ready to call the police. Steel is an expert interviewer, and one notes the unaffected compassion of all of the witnesses. Amid all these people with a slippery hold on life, it was refreshing to see the vitality of Pittsburgh photographer Richard Waters. He is matter of fact about the one jumper he scooped away from "the ultimate short cut to the Next Level": "She started to fight me a little bit, so I just sat on her chest." Walter and Mary Manikow, parents of the late Philip, rest on their couch with their pet dachshund, recounting the emotional torment of their son. To watch the Manikows is to remember that tombstone epitaph from World War I: "If love could have saved him, he wouldn't have died."

Jenni Olsen's The Joy of Life—that other obsessive documentary about the danger of the bridge—calls for a suicide barrier. Steel doesn't mention this matter (it's a political tangle, and it's supposedly going to cost $25 million). The production notes, and not the film, mention the warning signs: suicides-to-be generally takes off their shoes and leave their backpack and wallet on the sidewalk before climbing over the side. Something to watch out for.

In Steel's camera, the titanic confidence of the bridge's builders lives again. Compare this to the sad figures dropping off it, sometimes pebble-sized in the distance. First, a flare to mark the spot and then comes a boatload of Coast Guard sailors in puffy plastic hazmat suits. No one wants to be escorted to Valhalla by people dressed in trash bags. All the warnings, useless as they might be, need to be repeated: Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. It's an ultimate apology that no one worth anything will accept. And at least, all this death ruins the majesty of the view. Says the housemate of one suicide, who now can't see the Golden Gate without a sinking feeling: "Something else I'm pissed off about. Such a great bridge."

Movie Times The Bridge (R; 93 min.), a documentary by Eric Steel, opens Oct. 27 at Camera 12 in San Jose and CinČArts Santana Row.

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